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A Hidden Gem Discovered:The Laguna Beach Chamber Music Festival

Orange County
Laguna Beach Artists’ Theatre
04/15/2005 -  

Friday, April 15
Francois Francoeur: Sonata for Cello and Piano
Claude Debussy: Première Rapsodie for Clarinet & Piano
Maurice Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Maurice Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor
Christopher O'Riley (Piano)
Abraham Feder, (Cello)
Bella Hristova (Violin)
Yao Guang Zhia (Clarinet)

Saturday, April 16
Dimitri Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in F minor, Op. 87, No. 18
Radiohead (Arr. Christopher O’Riley): No Surprises
Dimitri Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, Op. 87, No. 19
Radiohead (Arr. Christopher O’Riley): Save Time, Sail to the Moon
Dimitri Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Op. 87, No. 20
Radiohead (Arr. Christopher O’Riley): Paranoid Android
Dimitri Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in B flat major, Op. 87
Radiohead (Arr. Christopher O’Riley): Gagging Order, Knives Out
Dimitri Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in G minor, Op. 87, No. 22
Elliot Smith (Arr. Christopher O’Riley): Not Half Right
Radiohead (Arr. Christopher O’Riley): Let Down
Dimitri Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in F major, Op. 87, No. 23
Radiohead (Arr. Christopher O’Riley): 2+2=5
Dimitri Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in D minor, Op. 87, No. 24
Christopher O'Riley (Piano)

Sunday, April 17
Brahms: Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38
Brahms: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F minor, Op. 120
Brahms: Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op.114
Brahms: Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 108
Christopher O'Riley (Piano)
Abraham Feder, (Cello)
Bella Hristova (Violin)
Yao Guang Zhia (Clarinet)

Laguna Beach has been a renowned and idyllic Southern California artist colony and seaside retreat for many decades. Now in its third season, the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Festival is making an intimate and vital contribution to the cultural life of the region. The vibrant and outstanding Philharmonic Society of Orange County produces a festival of high quality chamber music, both classical and modern. Laguna has much in common with the larger villages on the French Riviera. There are beautiful people, high prices, and a world-class breathtaking coastline with spectacular weather. There are several five-star resorts but also good small hotels, vacation rentals and many fine restaurants. In summer the anxiety of overdevelopment peaks as the crowds and congestion take over. But in April, this coastal town is a utopian setting for a chamber music festival.

Artists’ Theatre, on the local high school campus, is not a great work of architecture but it does look out onto the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. The acoustic is intimate, warm and clear. The sightlines are excellent. Tickets and parking are easily negotiated. The atmosphere is both relaxed and professional. This season’s substantial audience, from beachcombers to affluent European émigrés, was surprisingly sophisticated- there was utter enthusiasm but no applause between movements.

This young festival, still fairly secret, is a hidden jewel. Any great musician would be delighted to play here. Pianist Christopher O’Riley, this year’s music director, designed a splendid program of three diverse concerts. The warm musical rapport was palpable. The youthful musicians enjoyed themselves immensely, while confronting difficult music and the unyielding challenge of ensemble performance. O’Riley, host of the Public Radio show, “From the Top” , is an insightful, brilliantly musical pianist. But just as impressive, he is a subtle and talented mentor and musical entrepreneur.

In the opening piece of the festival, a Sonata for Cello and Piano by Francois Francoeur, an 18th century French composer, O’Riley was unassuming. He was the opposite of a classically demanding ensemble pianist, such as Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts Trio. He let the cellist, Abraham Feder, dance the gavotte and followed gingerly, as the baroque duet warmed up their modern instruments. The cellist was young and striving, but not yet strong and fluid.

In the second piece, Debussy’s Premiere Rapsodie for Clarinet and Piano, the young clarinetist achieved moments, even passages of exquisite lyricism. The performance was flawed but Yao Guang Zhia’s personality loomed large, his movements jazzy, Gershwin-like. The musician and the clarinet danced with each other, as if the clarinet were animated and could swing the young man around the dance floor. The pianist warmed up and was more engaging.

In Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, the young violinist, Bella Hristova, from Bulgaria via the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, first began to steal the festival’s heart. She walked on stage with the glamour of a movie star, opening with remarkable poise and exquisite intonation. In the Sonata’s Blues movement she was fluid, with slight imperfections but jazzy, elegant pizzicatti. In the Allegro Perpetuam Mobile she exhibited commanding poise and speed, the whipcord musculature of her throat taught with tension. O’Riley was nurturing as an accompanist, a proud mentor and an attentive older brother.

The string intonation in the ethereal opening of Ravel’s remarkable Piano Trio in A minor was slightly shrill, but almost perfect. The piano was absolute perfection. The strings were a little unsure but were soon cantering, galloping, with a suitable darkness of tone, marred by tiny flecks of weakness. Abraham Feder became a tall, athletic young man with ramrod posture, a red haired Gary Cooper of the cello. In the furious high-speed passages, the violin was strong. There were long moments of the strident metallic string sound that are absolutely called for in this piece. But I was always waiting for the intensity and confidence of the piano. Finally, the cello lost its way entirely, falling flat in a solo passage. The piece fell apart. But the ensemble recouped somewhat by the end, proving this piece one of the most difficult as well as one of the most beautiful in the literature.

Saturday evening’s concert, entitled “Shostakovich Meets Radiohead” was the definitive modern showcase for the gift of Christopher O’Riley. The hall was 95% full, with a smattering of young rockers who obviously came to hear O’Riley’s famous piano transcriptions of the highly respected British rock band, Radiohead. A relaxed and experienced speaker, the pianist gave an extraordinary verbal introduction to the music. He told the story of his friendship with the late Tatiana Nicolaeska, making a subtle tribute to the pianist whose renditions of Bach helped inspire Shostakovich to write the Preludes. He asserted, flat out, that he believed the Shostakovich Preludes to be the most important works for solo piano in the 20th century.

In the first half of the concert, the pianism might have been more precisely articulated. The transcriptions of Radiohead’s rock music seemed to me to have much in common with jazz piano, O’Riley’s hands often a blur over the keyboard. But the Shostakovich was often luminous, at times a whispered dialogue between parent and child, at times a bitter, unfathomable dirge.

After the intermission, the pianist found his stride, and accelerated. There was no longer any doubt of his ability to articulate, precisely and subtly, the distance between Shostakovich and Radiohead. He began to navigate these disparate musical worlds in a way that illuminated both of them, opening a window for me into Radiohead, an unknown universe. And I imagine that he also opened a skylight up to Shostakovich, for the rockers in the audience. The music poured out from a firmament filled with starlight, darkness and thunder, an atmosphere of devastating magnificence. Alternating with the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, the Radiohead transcriptions offered cantabile melodies, at moments cantering or gentle. The Elliot Smith song, masterfully arranged for piano, was striking, authentically beautiful.

The final Preludes of the evening bore tears and thunder, explosions of crushing beauty; all the tragedy and anxiety of the modern age, structured by vertebrae of flawless counterpoint. Celestial strains of Bach shimmered just out of reach, suggesting peace and beauty that surpass understanding. I came to understand the pianist’s claim; the Shostakovich Preludes may well be the greatest modern compositions for solo piano. The audience was on its knees, almost in frenzy.

For an encore, he played more Radiohead. The rockers went wild. The music was more melodious thunder, the last encore a sort of rock “Hammerklavier.” Before the break, I had doubts about this concert, its exotic, daring, populist program. By the end, I was persuaded. This musician is breaking new ground.

The final concert, titled “Brahms by the Beach”, proved to be a near ideal performance in a chamber music festival. The evening opened with Brahms’ Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. While the piano was confident and strong, the clarinet lacked mastery and depth. Clarinetist Yao Guang Zhia was relaxed and unhurried, but his breathing was irregular. Nevertheless, the young musician revealed a tremendous sensibility for the instrument, and for Brahms as well.

In Brahms’ gorgeous Cello Sonata in E minor, op. 38, Abraham Feder redeemed himself, becoming a young musical Achilles. The dramatic duet grew into a pitched battle of equals. The piano was masterful, the passionate ensemble brilliant. The power and aggression of the music swept away deliberate thought. I was spellbound. The audience roared.

The Cello Sonata was Brahms at his most profound, a hard act to follow. The next piece, Brahms’ Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op.114, was lilting and lovely, full of energy in the last movement. But squeaky shoes and coughing distracted.

Before the final piece, Brahms’ Violin Sonata #3 in D minor, Op. 108, the audience let out an astonished gasp, as the violinist Bella Hristova came on stage. Adorned in a full-length emerald green satin gown, she stole the show. She was a contradiction, containing multitudes: ebullience and poise, youth and understanding, revelation and reserve. In the exquisite allegro forte passages, she was commanding, her tone and dexterity ravishing. For the audience, she was clearly an inspiration, the discovery and darling of the festival. Her future career will bring joy to many.

The Brahms shared a breathtaking profundity with Shostakovich, a purity of expression, and candor in the face of pain; angst, bitterness, anger, rage, despair, beauty, magnificence, peace. This season, the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Festival offered brilliant light to illumine the challenges to youth and music today.

Thomas Aujero Small



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